150 Years Ago: Who showed the white flag? Surrender at Arkansas Post

The simple act of putting a flotilla of warships and transports on the Arkansas river practically assured the Federals of victory at Arkansas Post.  Major General John McClernand’s Army of the Mississippi, with 33,000 men on some fifty transports supported by nine warships, vastly outnumbered the defenders at Fort Hindman.  Confederate Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill’s command numbered around 5,500 men.  Most of those were dismounted cavalry regiments.  Dismounted Texas cavalry, mind you.

As described in yesterday’s post, the Federals brought most (but not all) of their weight to bear on the defenders, with artillery and naval bombardments coupled with advancing infantry, during the afternoon of January 11.   I discussed the Federal perspective of this action earlier, so let us turn to the Confederate perspective.  In his report of the action, filed in May of 1863, Churchill wrote about his dispositions, indicating that Colonel James Deshler’s brigade held the left of the line; Colonel Robert Garland’s held the right, anchored at Fort Hindman; and Colonel John W. Dunnington held the fort and river defenses.  From the theater commander.  Churchill’s orders were “to hold out till help arrived or until all dead.”

Confederate dispositions (Yellow) and Federal lines (Red)

Churchill indicated the Federal bombardment began at around noon, with four (!) ironclads dueling with the three guns of Fort Hindman.  While the gunboats managed to silence the fort and pass upriver, Churchill felt the land defenses held up better, driving back the Federals “with a great slaughter in no less than eight different charges.” But the line would not hold for long:

The fort had now been silenced about an hour, most of the field pieces had been disabled, still the fire raged furiously along the entire line and that gallant banal of Texans and Arkansians having nothing to rely upon now save their muskets and bayonets, still disdained to yield to the overpowering foe of 50,000 men, who were pressing upon them from almost every direction.  Just at this moment, to my great surprise, severea1 white flags were displayed in the Twenty-fourth Regiment Texas Dismounted Cavalry, First Brigade, and before they could be suppressed the enemy took advantage of them, crowded upon my lines, and not being prevented by the brigade commander from crossing, as was his duty I was forced to the humiliating necessity of surrendering the balance of the command. My great hope was to keep them in cheek until night., and then, if re-enforcements did not reach me, cut my way out. No stigma should rest upon the troops. It was no fault of theirs; they fought with a desperation and courage yet unsurpassed in this war, and I hope and trust that the traitor will yet be discovered, brought to justice, and suffer the full penalty of the law. My thanks are due to Colonels Anderson and Gillespie for the prompt measures taken to prevent the raising of the white flag in their regiments. In the Second Brigade, commanded by the gallant Deshler, it was never displayed.

Churchill certainly considered the surrender premature and placed the blame on Colonel Garland.  His report, originally written while Garland was a prisoner of war after the battle, contained more details of the initial display of the white flags:

About 4 o’clock p.m. Colonel Dunnington, commanding the fort, called on me for a re-enforcement of 100 men, and although one-half of my command was already detached, deeming the holding of the fort of vital importance to us, I directed Lieutenant-Colonel Anderson to throw the two right companies of his regiment into the fort. While this was being executed two gunboats passed the fort, delivering their fire immediately opposite. The fort and the two guns on this part of the line being silenced, the enemy’s batteries and gunboats had complete command of the position, taking it in front, flank, and rear at the same time, literally raking our entire position. It was during this terrific cross-fire, about 4.30 o’clock p.m., that my attention was attracted by the cry of “Raise the white flag, by order of General Churchill; pass the order up the line,” and on looking to the left, to my great astonishment, I saw quite a number of white flags displayed in Wilkes’ regiment (Twenty-fourth Texas Cavalry, dismounted), from the right company extending as far as I could see toward the left. At this time I was near the left company of the Sixth Texas Infantry. This regiment refused to raise the white flag or to pass the word up the line; but being deceived by the sudden and simultaneous display of white flags (for I could not conceive it possible that a white flag could be thus treacherously displayed in any part of our line with impunity), as well as by the cessation of firing on the left and the repeated and emphatic manner in which the words came coupled with the name of the commanding officer, I was convinced at the time that the order had originated from the proper source though not conveyed through the ordinary channel–as at this time the enemy’s fire of artillery and small-arms was so intensely hot that no one could have passed from the general’s position to mine without being struck–and directed the words to be passed to the fort as they had come to me. As the order did not reach me through the ordinary channel I did not feel authorized to give any order on the subject, and particularly as no order could have been of any avail, the act having already been consummated before it came to my knowledge. As the white flags were not displayed on the line from the right of Wilkes’ regiment to the fort the enemy’s batteries kept up fire on this part of the line for some minutes after the firing had ceased on the left and until they had taken possession of the fort. From all the information I can obtain on this subject the white flag which thus treacherously deceived the rest of the command was raised in Wilkes’ Twenty-fourth Regiment Texas Cavalry (dismounted), and the interest of the service, as well as justice to the rest of the brigade, demands a thorough and immediate investigation.

Beyond doubt, it was the 24th Texas Cavalry which first displayed the white flags.  But the question remained as to who authorized such.   Garland, as a point of honor, demanded an inquiry to establish the points of fact in the matter.  For over a year, Garland pressed this request to no avail.

Historian Edwin C. Bearss, in The Vicksburg Campaign: Vicksburg is the Key (Volume one of three in his history of the campaign), concluded the Garland was responsible for the surrender.  Garland, a regular army officer before the war, should have brought some order to the confusion, particularly where he saw the alleged surrender order passed in a manner contradictory to normal procedures.  My take is who actually wave the white flags first is of lesser consequence.  In the larger context, the Confederate command faced questions as to why the garrison was left exposed and unsupported in the first place.

While commanders can issue orders braced with ironclad resolve to “hold to the death”, such grim determination is hard to convey to the men in the trenches.  Particularly a dismounted Texas trooper standing in the mud on a cold January day at a some unimportant remote garrison.  The 24th Texas Cavalry, with the rest of the garrison, surrendered that day and were later exchanged.  This was not their last battle in 1863.  Those Texans from Arkansas Post would fight on other fields.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 17, Part I, Serial 24, pages 780-790).

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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